China 2009

April 20, 2009

I can’t remember the last time I saw less of a Formula 1 Grand Prix whilst my eyes were trained on it.  It’s reasonably rare to get a race like the one yesterday, where the rain is unrelenting and unchanging throughout, and the spray and lack of visibility was remarkable.  What it must have been like in the cars probably doesn’t bare thinking about, so it is testimony to the skills of the world’s twenty best racing drivers that there were so few accidents – especially considering that the race was the first wet running any of them had done in the entire weekend.  Particularly impressive, of course, was Sebastian Vettel.  Still not yet 22 years of age and twice a Grand Prix winner, we are surely watching the first steps of what will be a monumental career.

Red Bull had a dream weekend, all told.  Their car, so impressive in the wet all season, also excelled in the dry – although with fuel adjustment is still a little behind the Brawn on overall pace.  Significantly, of course, the team are yet to try a double-decker diffuser which, considering the man designing it will be Adrian Newey, is likely to make the car more competitive still.  I expect at least one Red Bull driver to be in championship contention right up until the end of the season.  As I have already mentioned, Vettel was brilliant in Shanghai, easily having the measure of all of his rivals and not making a mistake worth the name in impossible conditions.  Mark Webber always looked a step behind his teammate, but thoroughly deserved second place, his best result thus far in a Grand Prix.  With Red Bull’s car so fast and the diffuser still to come, it’s not hard to imagine that Webber may manage to break his Grand Prix duck some time this year.

Brawn looked a little out of sorts in China, but will be happy with third and fourth place in a difficult race.  Rubens Barrichello was impressive in qualifying but again lost out to Jenson Button on race day, Button’s smoothness really coming into its element.  Expect the white cars to go into Bahrain – where rain is very unlikely to trip them up – as favourites for the win again.

Third up were McLaren Mercedes, showing steady improvement all the time.  With new aerodynamic pieces, Lewis Hamilton got the car into the top 10 in qualifying, whilst the team’s KERS system has always made them a more competitive proposition on Sunday afternoons.  Hamilton was very racy indeed and provided a great deal of entertainment, but he overstepped the line too often, losing handfuls of time to spins and other excursions.  This allowed Heikki Kovalainen, who drove a rock steady race, to score his first points of the year.  As well as completing his first full racing laps.

Toyota were the first of the teams who had a really disappointing time.  Timo Glock drove a fine race in the circumstances, a poor qualifying plus a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change leaving him to come from 19th to finish 7th.  Jarno Trulli was the race’s first retirement after being hit from behind by Robert Kubica’s BMW.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, as Trulli seemed completely bereft of any confidence or speed on race day, which has been the story of his entire F1 career.  A big step forward will be required in Bahrain, as the team – under pressure from the boardroom to win some races – look to get the full advantage of their diffuser before the rest catch up.

Toro Rosso‘s weekend was largely helped by the fact they have the same car as Red Bull Racing.  However, their real ace was Sebastien Buemi, increasingly impressive in his debut season.  He already seems to have the measure of his namesake teammate Bourdais, whose resigned radio calls back to his pit after failing to get into Q2 are already becoming a highlight of my Saturdays in 2009.  This weekend, though, Buemi qualified the car 10th and raced strongly throughout – although he was lucky not to have had more damage when he ran into Sebastian Vettel’s rear wheel during the second safety car period.  His 8th place means he has scored points in 2 of his first three Grands Prix, and increasingly looks like he has the potential to be a coming man.

Renault had a strange weekend.  Using their new diffuser, Fernando Alonso put the car on the front row of the grid by running with a thimble’s worth of petrol.  A victory for the PR war, it nevertheless completely shagged his race in tactical terms, especially when the heavens opened.  His first pit stop taking place even before the safety car had pulled in at the start of the race and from then on it was damage limitation, so 9th place was fairly respectable, the best the car could do on the day.  The same cannot be said for Nelson Piquet’s weekend.  Although he had the mitigating circumstance of Alonso having all the latest updated parts on his car, Piquet qualified at the back again and did little to improve on this in the race.  He’s under serious pressure now.

Ferrari can sympathise with this, as an entire country is now demanding answers.  However, despite not having any aero updates and running without KERS, Massa undid a poor qualifying with a strong race.  It was another fine performance from a driver whose attitude is just as impressive as his skill at the wheel, and another demonstration of how far along he has come.  Massa was lying in a competitive and well-fueled 3rd place when his car succumbed to drowned electrics, and would have more than probably scored a podium finish.  With the car as troublesome as it is, it will be nice for the team to know that at least in Massa they have a part they can absolutely rely on.  Whether or not they feel the same about Kimi Räikkönen I do not know.  The 2007 champion started the weekend in resigned mood, more or less admitting that the 2009 title race’s goose was already cooked.  This is not the sort of thing Michael Schumacher would ever have said publically, and not the sort of thing the people working in the factory need to hear.  His performances on the track this weekend will have done little to dispel any of this gloom, either.  Three races in, no points scored.  Unless you count the ones scored by the Ferrari engine in the Toro Rosso.

BMW also have it all to do.  A miserable qualifying left the drivers in a vulnerable position, and duly both Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica spent the race being nerfed, nudged and punted from pillar to post, Kubica particularly spending a good half of a minute in the pits longer than he had intended.  The team’s work on the 2009 car does not, as it stands, seem to have paid off.  However, few would bet against such an organisation not being able to make positive steps forward, particularly as the car seems to have the potential to be competitive on the longer runs.

Force India would clamber over their own mothers for BMW’s problems, of course.  Their car looks down on grip compared to all of their rivals and the drivers spun more in dry practice than in the wet race.  Adrian Sutil again demonstrated a fine grasp on wet weather driving, as well as a fine line in bad luck, aquaplaning off with five laps to run when he looked to have 6th place – and Force India’s first ever points – in the bag.  This must be particularly agonising for the team, as they know such conditions are not particularly easy to rely on.  Fisichella continued to plug away in the second car, gaining his third successive finish.  If they could graft his reliability to Sutil’s speed, they could well have a recipe for some points at last this year.

Finally, a weekend to forget for Williams.  Like their engine supplier Toyota, Williams face a race against time to fully exploit their aerodynamic cleverness before everyone else catches up.  However, this weekend seemed to be a step back in all directions – although Nico Rosberg again topped the timesheets in a free practice session, this time on Saturday morning.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, spent much of the race facing the oncoming traffic, whilst Rosberg – uncompetitive and gambling late on with intermediate tyres – saw any chance of a point evapourate as the rains returned in earnest.

There’ll be a more considered look at the Chinese Grand Prix here later on, but Sebastian Vettel’s excellent win yesterday means he still has a 100% record of converting pole position into race victory.  On the whole, anybody who has taken pole for a World Championship Grand Prix has usually gone on to win one, whether from the front of the grid or not.  In the 59-year history of the championship, there are just nine drivers who saw off all their rivals in qualifying but never managed to do the same in the race.

Chris Amon (NZ) 5 pole positions (1968 Spain, Belgium, Netherlands; 1971 Italy; 1972 France)

The brilliant Amon, clearly the best Formula 1 driver to never win a World Championship round, was afflicted by the most diabolical luck when there were championship points on offer.  Despite his frequent successes in non-Championship Formula 1 races and in a multitude of other formulae – including the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1966 – Amon had to be satisfied with a best of three second place finishes.  Fortunately, a sportsman and a gentleman to the last, he was.

Teo Fabi (I) 3 pole positions (1985 Germany; 1986 Austria, Italy)

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of Teo Fabi’s career in Formula 1, encompassing 71 Grands Prix in the mid-1980s.  Driving exclusively for some fairly competitive upper-midfield teams, he would only occasionally put his head above the parapet and make his presence felt.  His best finish – two third-places – is probably a fair reflection of events.  His three pole positions, meanwhile, came out of left field.  He planted a Toleman Hart at the front of the grid for the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring in 1985, a season dominated by Alain Prost’s McLaren and Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari.  In 1986, he used the rebranded Benetton’s enormously powerful turbocharged BMW engine to take pole at the season’s two fastest tracks, leading in the first race before his motor failed.  Mechanical problems also saw him have to start the latter from the pit lane.

Jean-Pierre Jarier (F) 3 pole positions (1975 Argentina, Brazil; 1978 Canada)

An enigma.  Occasionally fast beyond belief, Jarier was too often afflicted with less-than-competitive machinery and mechanical gremlins.  He created a sensation in 1975, qualifying on pole for the first two Grands Prix of the season in an unfancied Shadow Ford.  However, a mechanical fault saw him unable to take the start in the Argentine race, whilst in Brazil he led until the car again let him down.  Finally given a chance in top line equipment at the championship-winning Lotus team in 1978 following the death of Ronnie Peterson in Italy, Jarier repeated the trick, dominating the Canadian Grand Prix until his car failed.  His best finish was third place, achieved three times in a career of crazily fluctuating fortunes and a lot of smoke.

Stuart Lewis-Evans (GB) 2 pole postions (1957 Italy; 1958 Netherlands)

Lewis-Evans, a driver managed by Bernie Ecclestone, is now largely forgotten, superceded by a welter of successful British racing drivers.  This is a shame, as Lewis-Evans demonstrated in his 14 Grands Prix a great deal of skill and promise – enough, indeed, to suggest that his name could have easily joined that of Mike Hawthorn, Graham Hill or John Surtees in the pantheon of English World Champions of the era.  Driving for Vanwall in 1958, Lewis-Evans achieved two podium finishes in third place – helping his team to the inaugural Constructor’s Cup – which would represent his best results.  His engine siezed up in the season-closing Moroccan Grand Prix, causing him to crash heavily.  He died from the burns he sustained six days later.

Eugenio Castellotti (I) one pole position (1955 Belgium)

The archetype flamboyant young Italian racing driver, Castellotti’s bravado endeared him to a generation of impressionable motor racing fans.  He had the talent to back up his bluster, though, finishing second in his second World Championship Grand Prix and taking pole for his third.  A further second place finish followed in France the following season.  He was killed when he was thrown clear of the Ferrari sports car he was testing at Monza early in 1957, aged just 26.

Andrea de Cesaris (I) one pole position (1982 Long Beach)

A countercultural legend of Formula 1 motor racing, de Cesaris achieved the majority of his notoriety thanks to his relentless crashing.  However, it must also be remembered that he was occasionally very, very quick.  Only bad luck prevented him from potentially winning in Belgium in 1983 and 1991, whilst he planted his Alfa Romeo on the front of the grid in California’s premier motor sport even at the beginning of the 1982 season.  In the race, however, he got held up by Raul Boesel’s lapped car whilst dicing for the lead with Niki Lauda’s McLaren.  Deciding to shake his gearchanging fist at the recalcitrant Boesel, Lauda easily slipped by on the straight.  His best result – 2 second places in the 1983 season – was not enough to save him from the ignimony of establishing the record for most Grand Prix starts without a race win: 208.

Nick Heidfeld (D) one pole position (2005 Europe)

Arriving in Formula 1 in 2000, a multiple champion in lower formulae and with backing from McLaren and Mercedes, much was expected of Heidfeld.  A dismal first season at the uncompetitive Prost team, though, saw much of the heat dissipate.  Settling into drives with Sauber, Jordan and Williams, Heidfeld has proven himself solid, quick and dependable without ever really showing the spark which might entice a top-line team to take a punt on running him.  Now back at Sauber in their new guise as BMW, Heidfeld has found himself in the most competitive machinery of his career and really must deliver quickly, as Andrea de Cesaris’ rather undesirable record is looming ever closer.  Heidfeld is already the proud owner of his own little piece of statistical history: his eight second places are the most runner-up spots ever achieved by a non-winning driver.

Mike Parkes (GB) one pole position (1966 Italy)

A talented engineer as well as a gifted driver, Parkes spent the majority of his short (7 Grands Prix) career at Ferrari.  However, his gifts as a spannerman were more richly prized than his driving by Enzo Ferrari and, in a time of unspeakable risk and danger, he was frequently passed over in favour of other drivers.  Nevertheless, he suffered a terrifying crash in the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, from which he was fortunate to escape with just two broken legs, which ended his top line motor sport career.  He died in a road accident ten years later.

Tom Pryce (GB) one pole position (1975 Britain)

Pryce is often rightly cited as the one that got away.  A driver of enormous talent, his best of two third place finishes is more a reflection of his meagre equipment – Pryce spent his entire career save for one race with the midfield Shadow team – than his skill.  Still, despite the shortcomings of his cars, he was still able to exhibit enough of his huge natural ability to suggest he had the makings of a future Grand Prix great.  Sadly, it was not to be, as Pryce was killed in a brutal, freak accident at the 1977 South African Grand Prix, hitting a fire marshall who carelessly ran across Kyalami’s undulating pit straight in order to help Pryce’s stranded teammate Renzo Zorzi.

Wednesday’s FIA ruling on the legality of Toyota, Williams and Brawn GP’s double-decker diffusers has finally lifted a great fog from the brave new world that is Formula 1, 2009 style.  Grumbling though they may be, the onus is now on the other teams to rise to the technical challenge, which makes a refreshing change to anybody who has followed the sport for a number of years.  This, gentlemen, is what Formula 1 is supposed to be like.  However, in spite of their pathetic whinging, expect the majority of the pit lane to be fully double-deckered up very soon – by the opening of the European season in Spain at the very latest.  Indeed, both Renault and McLaren will be debuting their version of the concept this weekend in Shanghai which, given both teams’ less than spectacular opening two races is very much the least surprising thing that could have happened.

Perhaps more surprising are some of the decisions coming out of Maranello.  It’s the early 1990s all over again at Ferrari, with heads rolling and bodies being reshuffled around the factory in order to arrest the team’s meagre 2009 season.  15 years ago, when it seemed like the team had more or less forsaken winning on a matter of socialist principle, such affairs were common.  However, it’s rather odd to see it happening again, however inevitable it was.  Success in Formula 1 – as with the majority of team sports – works on a helix curve, so a dip from a Ferrari team who have rewritten the rulebook on Formula 1 dominance in the past decade was only to be expected.  Given that that run was built on a very un-Ferrari spell of stability, though, it will be interesting to see the effects of the rejig on the team’s fortunes.  Interesting, too, will be to see if a conservative strategy – Ferrari have neither a new diffuser ready for Shanghai, nor will they be using their troublesome KERS system this weekend – will be the way forward.  Either way, it has been most amusing to see Ferrari not getting their own way so far in 2009, especially in their favoured battleground at the FIA buildings, Place de Concorde, Paris.

With the diffuser verdict in and the teams still several weeks from being able to return back to their safe European home to scratch their heads and lick their wounds, it’s reasonable to expect more of the same in Shanghai.  The Brawn will remain the car to beat, with Rubens Barrichello no doubt keen to put one over on Jenson Button at a circuit where, in 2004, the Brazilian won the inaugural race for Ferrari.  Toyota, too, will be looking to make the most of their technological advantage whilst they can.  Williams will, I think, struggle in the race – their car is proving hard on its tyres over long runs and the compounds that Bridgestone are taking to Shanghai are on the entertainingly soft side.  Expect rubber to be a major talking point at some point this weekend.  McLaren and Renault will – if the protesting teams were right about the 0.5 second-per-lap advantage of the trick diffuser – see some improvements, too, but they’ll need more than just a half second to get back on terms.

Of the non-diffuser gang, I expect Red Bull to be the strongest competition.  I think that their rivals should be pretty worried about how fast the RB5 car will be once Adrian Newey has added an extra storey to the arse end, because they already have the makings of a fiercely competitive machine.  I would not rule Webber or particularly Sebastian Vettel out of the running for pole position or even a big score on race day.  BMW and Ferrari’s schizophrenic cars add an extra spice of the unknown into this oriental blend on a track where racing is not out of the question.  Here’s hoping for three out of three good races.

My ultimately risible China 2009 prediction:

Pole position: Button (Brawn GP)

Podium: 1st – Rubens Barrichello (Brawn GP); 2nd – Jarno Trulli (Toyota); 3rd – Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull).

There was a certain inevitibility to it, in the end.  Starting a race at 5 p.m. in a country with tropical weather systems was always going to end with everybody in the dark, metaphorically and otherwise.  Nevertheless, Formula 1’s first half points race since Ayrton Senna won a 14-lap Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide nearly 18 years ago, did not skimp on entertainment or interest.  It’s becoming clear that KERS is very much worth the weight penalty of running it on race day, whilst the ten teams and their drivers teased us yet further by still not revealing the true pecking order.

Well, nine of them did, as it is now pretty much confirmed that Brawn do indeed have the car to beat.  Jenson Button put in his very best Grand Prix drive yet – in a car which he had never driven before in wet conditions, a tribute both to him and the engineers – and duly scored his first F1 hattrick of win, pole and fastest lap.  What is less clear is who their closest rivals are.  BMW have looked to be nowhere two race weekends in a row, only to suddenly appear challenging for top honours towards the end.  Williams are very quick indeed but don’t seem to be able to keep it up consistently for a full race distance.  Ferrari, too, are showing signs of pace amidst the panicking.

As I thought would be the case in the build-up to Sepang, though, the current pick must surely be Toyota, who had another very strong race capped with a third and fourth-place finish.  The TF109 car is now apparently equipped with a triple-decker diffuser which obviously worked wonders for grip and stability in the changing conditions.  The FIA appeal hearing about the diffuser issue is on Tuesday week.  If, as I expect, the gadget is passed legal to race, every team will arrive in China with one the following Friday.  In fact, it could end up like a battle between razor manufacturers, with each successive team fitting more and more levels to their diffuser.  Six-storeys, for less irritation.

Toyota’s drivers, too, are clearly relishing their new car.  Timo Glock is coming on rapidly as a Grand Prix driver, showing a knack for making canny tactical calls and having the talent to translate them into results which is often the mark of the true top-line driver.  Jarno Trulli remains something of an enigma on race day, but there’s little doubting his speed in qualifying.  Something has got to give under this sort of pressure, and I don’t expect it will be too long before Toyota finally win a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Who else will win one is a big question.  McLaren and Ferrari surely won’t remain in quite this much disarray all year, so they cannot be discounted.  At the moment, though, Brawn and Toyota’s big rivals are perhaps Red Bull.  Adrian Newey’s car is pretty well bolted to the floor – witness it’s grip in damp conditions yesterday – and in Sebastian Vettel has one of the quickest drivers around.  Their bad luck on Sundays can’t continue indefinitely.  Williams, too, are showing promise.  I believe their problem is related to tyre graining, which makes it hard for Rosberg to keep up the same pace throughout.  However, two races down and Williams have set one fastest lap and led one race until the first pit stops.  It’s a sure sign of a team moving in the right direction.

Ferrari’s direction is, from a historical viewpoint, reassuringly scattered.  After a boob in qualifying with Felipe Massa’s car, Räikkönen fitting rain tyres a full six minutes before any precipitation was eccentric to say the least.  Desperate, would be another way to describe it.  When you consider that Force India, now looking like they are firmly embroiled in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon again this year, were the only other team to replicate the gamble, it speaks volumes for Ferrari’s questionable competitiveness.

Ironically, given their relative one-lap pace, it is their great rivals McLaren who seem to have the edge on race day.  Their KERS system is clearly super-efficient and helping the drivers redress some of the grip-related problems they are suffering.  Or rather, he is suffering, as again in 2009 Lewis Hamilton finished lap 1 as Woking’s sole representative in the race.  Heikki Kovalainen needs to get some serious lappage under his belt quickly.

As for the remainder, Toro Rosso had another solid if unspectacular race, flirting on the fringes of the points when the race was stopped.  Lastly, Renault‘s plug-ugly car remains relentlessly off the pace, with Nelson Piquet still stubbornly off the pace of his teammate, even in spite of Fernando Alonso being laid low this weekend with an ear infection.  It’s hard to see Piquet lasting a full season at the team at his current level of competitiveness and it just may be the case that this knowledge itself is not helping his driving.

All this said, the difference between success and failure is still incredibly slim, with the field often separated by a couple of seconds only over a single lap.  It’s still all to play for, but it’ll be Brawn to beat in Shanghai.

With a bit of luck I’ll manage to crack out a more considered review of today’s semi-aquatic happenings in Sepang for you tomorrow.  Until then, you’ll have to make do with the moment you’ve all been dreading: the (albeit probably sporadic) return of list of the week.

This week: the twenty current Formula 1 drivers listed in order of when they last actually won a competitive motor race, from most to least recent.

1. Jenson Button 5th April 2009 (Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang)
2. Felipe Massa 2nd November 2008 (Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos)
3. Lewis Hamilton 19th October 2008 (Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai)
4. Fernando Alonso 12th October 2008 (Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji Speedway)
5. Sebastian Vettel 14th September 2008 (Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix, Monza)
6. Heikki Kovalainen 3rd August 2008 (Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix, Hungaroring)
7. Sebastien Buemi 3rd August 2008 (GP2 Series Hungaroring sprint race)
8. Robert Kubica 8th June 2008 (Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, Montréal)
9. Kimi Räikkönen 27th April 2008 (Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix, Montmélo)
10. Sebastién Bourdais 11th November 2007 (Champ Car World Series Grand Prix of Mexico City, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez)
11. Timo Glock 30th September 2007 (GP2 Series Valencia sprint race, Circuit Ricardo Tormo)
12. Adrian Sutil 27th August 2006 (All-Japan Formula 3 Fuji Speedway race 2)
13. Nelson Piquet Jr 26th August 2006 (GP2 Series Istanbul feature race)
14. Kazuki Nakajima 30th April 2006 (Formula 3 Euroseries Lausitzring race 2)
15. Giancarlo Fisichella 19th March 2006 (Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang)
16. Nico Rosberg 30th September 2005 (GP2 Series Bahrain sprint race, Sakhir)
17. Rubens Barrichello 26th September 2004 (Formula 1 Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai)
18. Jarno Trulli 23rd May 2004 (Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix)
19. Mark Webber 30th June 2001 (International Formula 3000 Magny-Cours)
20. Nick Heidfeld 24th July 1999 (International Formula 3000 Spielberg (A1-Ring))

A fairly impressive bunch of results.  Eighteen drivers have troubled the trophy engravers within the past five years, nine of whom have done so in the last 12 months and twelve having won fully-fledged World Championship Grands Prix.  The lowliest win is probably that of Adrian Sutil in an All-Japan F3 race, which nevertheless contributed to a championship-winning season in a well-respected Formula 3 series.  Most notable for me is Nick Heidfeld, just a few months short of a full winless decade.  At which time this blog will start to call him exclusively by girls’ names.

McLaren’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix for deliberately misleading the event’s stewards has left a sour taste in the mouth.  In a season where already – and very unusually – all the positives seem to be coming from the on track action as a spectacle as petty politicking rages all around it, it is still clearly an early nadir point which will hopefully not be challenged in the remaining 16 races.

For the driver, it’s another blow.  Lewis Hamilton is already as popular as a dose amongst his rivals.  Like Michael Schumacher, they complain about some his on-track exploits only for him to get away with his worst excesses.  And, like Schumacher, he compounds this frustration with also being a quite brilliant racing driver, a man of sufficient gifts that he need not ever attempt anything even approaching a bending of the rules or their spirit.  It is going to be hard work to regain his credibility with his fellows now.  As a sportsman, what he did is pretty much as low as it gets.

Hamilton claims he is not a liar.  On the whole, I believe him.  I’ve followed his career for 14 years and he has always exhibited a sportsmanlike integrity and a personal honesty.  However, I cannot believe that a man of his, very obvious, moral values was not at least partially complicit in his and his team’s baffling decision to mislead the stewards last Sunday.  The official line which is being taken here is that Hamilton was told to withhold certain pertinent details by Dave Ryan, McLaren’s (now at the very least suspended) sporting director.  The fact is, though, that Hamilton isn’t a rookie with it all to prove, he’s not clinging onto his drive, nor is he a stranger to the team.  His lengthy association with McLaren is now a thing of legend and its contribution his world championship triumph last year cannot be underestimated.  At the very least, Hamilton should have stood up to the team, refused their unreasonable, dastardly and unsporting request.  We will probably never know why he did not do this.  We will probably never fully rid ourselves of this little cloud hanging over the head of Lewis Hamilton the sportsman as a result.  A real shame.

Where Hamilton’s disgrace is all the more hurtful on account of its uncharacteristicness, the same cannot necessarily be said of his team.  In the past years, especially in the wake of the draconian penalties in the Ferrari espionage case, there has been a softening towards McLaren.  The great irony of this now is that this mainly has a sporting basis – they were the team most likely to be able to stop the domination of the Ferrari juggernaut set in motion by messrs. Brawn, Todt and Schumacher.  The decision this weekend has brought a lot of the old festering resentments back to the surface.  McLaren’s reputation, outwardly at least, has always been of a rather cold, mechanical outfit.  Since Ron Dennis’ Project 4 team took over at Woking in the early 1980s, the name McLaren has been a byword for ruthless efficiency and an endless, grinding pursuit of perfection.  When the victories dried up in the mid-1990s, people felt sorry for them.  A return to top line competition in 1997 and 1998, however, quickly reminded us of a rather uncomfortable truth: when wins are on the table, McLaren are the very sorest of losers, often lashing out like a bear with a sore head when things do not go their way.  Their punishment in 2007 was most probably reaping a decade of sown discontent – a muttered allegation here, an insinuation of unfair play there – which rubbed a lot of very powerful people, particularly Max Mosley, up the wrong way.  This was an unattractive streak, but it was also demonstrably a result of the outfit’s competitive urge.  Simply, it was being such bad losers which drove McLaren to be totally insuperable winners.

What is new here is the underhandedness,  something which has never been an issue with McLaren before now.  But it’s not just the duplicity which is so uncharacteristic, it’s also the stupidity.  Whoever is responsible for this piece of ugliness – be it a team decision, a group folly or a single rogue element – must have known that in the modern Formula 1, where everything from radio transmissions to the drivers toilet visits are scrupulously disclosed, they’d never possibly get away with it.  After 100 minutes of a race for which they’d qualified 18th in an uncompetitive car.  All this for just one extra point, when 4th place alone was practically a deliverance from the heavens.  The FIA say they reserve the right to punish the team further for this transgression.  I hope that they throw the bloody book at them.

More Malaysian preamble

April 1, 2009

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first Malaysian Grand Prix.  It increasingly looks like a marker post for the future of Formula 1, the first stage in the expansion of the sport into the East.  More importantly, though, it has usually provided some good, interesting racing, which is all that really matters.  As is my wont, I’ve decided to crunch some hard stats about the Malaysian Grand Prix.

2004

Date: 21.3.2004.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m33.047.  Fastest race lap: Juan Pablo Montoya 1m34.223  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from Juan Pablo Montoya and Jenson Button (BAR Honda).

Notes: The second round of a World Championship completely dominated by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.  The German won the first 5 races of the year and thirteen in total to win his 7th World Championship.  As you might expect from such a season, the race win here was very much a foregone conclusion, although there was some extra spice for British fans as Jenson Button scored his first ever podium finish in a Grand Prix.

2005

Date: 20.3.2005.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Fernando Alonso (Renault) 3m07.672 (2 lap aggregate).  Fastest race lap: Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m35.483  Race winner: Fernando Alonso, from Jarno Trulli (Toyota) and Nick Heidfeld (Williams BMW).

Notes: All change, with Michael Schumacher a distant 13th on the grid after practice problems in a largely uncompetitive Ferrari.  The 2005 rules, with no mid-race tyre stops allowed, also played havoc on the field as cars demolished their rear tyres in the heat, making for some exciting and unpredictable on-track dices.  One such battle saw a waning Giancarlo Fisichella passed by Nick Heidfeld for the final podium spot, only to tangle his Renault into a scrap heap with Heidfeld’s teammate Mark Webber at the next corner.  At the front, Alonso was serene.  Behind him, Toyota scored their first podium finish.

2006

Date: 19.3.2006.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Giancarlo Fisichella (Renault) 1m33.840.  Fastest race lap: Fernando Alonso (Renault) 1m33.803 Race winner: Giancarlo Fisichella, from Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button (Honda).

Notes: With Ferrari again slow to start the season, Renault again dominated the Malaysian Grand Prix, this time with Fisichella in control of the race, for once having the measure of Fernando Alonso, who qualified only 7th but came through quickly.  Jenson Button scored the reformed Honda team an early podium finish, but was never realistically on terms.

2007

Date: 8.4.2007.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1m35.043  Fastest race lap:Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1m36.701 Race winner: Fernando Alonso (McLaren Mercedes), from Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari).

Notes: An engrossing McLaren versus Ferrari showdown.  The red cars had the best of the practice, lining up 1st and 3rd.  However, on the run down to the first corner, the McLarens got amongst them.  As Alonso scampered off to his first win for McLaren – the team’s first, too, since Japan 2005 – Lewis Hamilton, in his second Grand Prix, served notice that he was going to cause the major players all kinds of trouble.  His determined and ultimately successful dice with the Ferrari pair, coupled to a fastest lap, made certain Formula 1 had a new star driver.

2008

Date: 23.3.2008.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Felipe Massa (Ferrari) 1m35.748  Fastest race lap:Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber) 1m35.366 Race winner: Kimi Räikkönen (Ferrari), from Robert Kubica (BMW Sauber) and Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren Mercedes).

Notes: The bad blood between McLaren and Ferrari was still flowing under the surface from the fractious 2007 season.  Last year, the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Kovalainen were penalised for blocking other cars during qualifying, losing five grid places each.  Making hay, the Ferrari team had a largely untroubled run to race victory, although a one-two finish was lost after Felipe Massa lost control and spun into retirement at the fast double right-hander round the back of the circuit.

2009…

As I said yesterday, it’s hard to see any real changes in the order of the cars from Melbourne.  However, the field are so closely matched that subtle areas where one car is better than another or one driver is a particular Sepang enthusiast could realistically pay dividends.  KERS will no doubt be important on race day, with the two long straights joined together by the tight final corner.  Expect, too, the extravagant front wings to be flying into the first corner on the first lap.  Seeing as it’s not rained properly since 2001 during the race, that’s long overdue.  It’s perhaps made more likely by the start time, moved back to the early evening to better suit European TV schedules, as it was last weekend in Australia.  It’s also a traditional time for a decent-sized tropical evening downpour.  I think we could be in for another exciting Grand Prix race.

Malaysian preamble

March 31, 2009

More of the same is to be expected from this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.  With only a week between the first and second races and the teams thousands of miles away from their European bases, it’s hard to see any of them making any fundamental progress up or down the grid.  Expect to see a strong performance from Brawn, then, but I have a feeling that it may prove to be Toyota, rather than Red Bull or BMW, who provide their sternest opposition for the laurels on race day.  Expect, too, to see a race which is at the very least as entertaining as last weekend’s, the Sepang track being custom-designed for modern F1 cars.  This could prove to be doubly so if the notoriously unpredictable and wild weather adds some rain into the mix.  Watch for Lewis Hamilton doing a rain dance in the pit lane.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first Malaysian Grand Prix.  It increasingly looks like a marker post for the future of Formula 1, the first stage in the expansion of the sport into the East.  More importantly, though, it has usually provided some good, interesting racing, which is all that really matters.  As is my wont, I’ve decided to crunch some hard stats about the Malaysian Grand Prix.

1999

Date: 17.10.1999.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m39.688.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m40.267.  Race winner: Eddie Irvine (Ferrari), from Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes)

Notes: This was Michael Schumacher’s return from the broken leg which sidelined him for much of the second half of the 1999 season.  He dominated the race meeting – the penultimate event of that year’s World Championship – holding up Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren and then allowing his teammate through to win, putting him in the driving seat in the title standings.  Ferrari were disqualified after the race for a technical infringement on their barge boards, temporarily handing Häkkinen the world crown until the decision was reversed on appeal.

2000

Date: 22.10.2000.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m37.397.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m38.542.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari)

Notes: The final round of the 2000 World Championship, with the title decided already in Michael Schumacher’s favour.  A promising battle between him and Mika Häkkinen, his title rival, evapourated early after the Finn was penalised for jumping the start.  Schumacher cruised to victory at a track where he was always a class apart, although he was chased hard in the latter stages by David Coulthard.

2001

Date: 18.3.2001.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny, becoming very wet due to a rainstorm, then drying.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.220.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m40.962.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes).

Notes: The first Malaysian Grand Prix in its traditional early-season date, this was the 2nd round of the 2001 championship.  The race was action packed.  An early race monsoon made conditions impossible, so impossible that 6 of the first 10 laps were behind the safety car and both Ferraris spun off the track.  The pace of the Ferrari F2001, though, was simply too much for the rest of the field to contain.

2002

Date: 17.3.2002.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.266.  Fastest race lap: Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams BMW) 1m38.049  Race winner: Ralf Schumacher (Williams BMW), from Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Schumacher.

Notes: An aberration in a season of crushing domination by Ferrari, the second round of the 2002 World Championship at the time gave us the ultimately false hope that Williams might be able to stop Schumacher from breezng to a 5th title.  As it was, Ferrari still dominated the early stages of the race, through Rubens Barrichello, until his car let him down mid-way.  Michael Schumacher, delayed by a penalty for colliding with Montoya turn 1 on the opening lap, could do no better than 3rd behind the Williams pair.  However, he went on to win the next four Grands Prix, and had the title wrapped up by July.

2003

Date: 23.3.2003.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Fernando Alonso (Renault) 1m37.044.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m36.412.  Race winner: Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes), from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and Fernando Alonso.

Notes: After Schumacher, M.’s crushing domination of the 2002 season, a raft of measures were made to even the playing field.  And they worked, as you can see from this result.  Michael Schumacher, normally a class apart at Sepang, could do no better than 6th after another first corner tangle, this time with Renault’s Jarno Trulli.  Alonso – at the time the youngest ever F1 polesitter – became the youngest ever leader of a Grand Prix (both records since have been eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel) before Kimi Räikkönen assumed a comfortable lead.  A race of firsts, it was Fernando Alonso’s first ever pole position and first podium finish in a Grand Prix, whilst Kimi Räikkönen scored his first Grand Prix win.

Join us again later this week when I cover 2004-2008’s events, in florid prose.

An inspiring start to a new Grand Prix season, where first race intrigue revolved around on-track racing, tactical intrigue and unpredictability to the last rather than the usual Melbourne-brand bumper car excitement.  This, too, was thrown in for good measure, making for a memorable and hugely encouraging start to the new-look Formula 1.  The pity, perhaps, is that the last-minute cameo of Albert Park’s traditional accidents deprived us of what could have been a very intriguing battle for the victory in the final laps.

However, Kubica and Vettel’s coming together was simply a racing incident, which have happened and will happen so long as cars race one another.  The real pity in all of this is that after such a positive beginning to a season, there are still so many unknowns.  Uncertainty over the legality of the winning car’s diffuser.  Uncertainty, too, surrounding the rear ends of the Toyota and Williams cars who featured so prominently in the race weekend.  Finally, uncertainty over 3rd place, as Toyota look set to appeal against Jarno Trulli being given a 25-second penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton under yellow flags, dropping him from the podium to 12th place after a spirited drive.  For all the joy, colour and excitement we witnessed today, it’s difficult to ever remember the sport being so united and yet so fractious at the same time.  The FIA needs to quickly resolve all these appeals, counter-appeals and grey areas, because it looks like the action has returned to the track and people need to remember to keep it there.

The day belonged to the Buttons.  Jenson Button won the race in a car I fully expect to be cleared as legal to race in the week after the Malaysian GP next weekend.  It was a controlled and measured performance of the sort of authority we often all suspected Button was capable of producing, if only he could get his hands on a good enough car.  The diffuser issue, temporarily pushed to the back of people’s minds, is most likely not the panacea of performance of the remarkable Brawn GP001 car, but once it is resolved, a levelling of the playing field will probably see the team begin to show their ring-rustiness.  As such, a performance like this one may prove to be the very best example of making hay while the sun shines, or yet prove to be the curtain raiser to a remarkable season of achievement.  Either way, it will rejuvenate Button’s career and standing in the paddock, he finally having proved beyond doubt that he can get the job done.

The second major button of the weekend was the KERS boost button.  Eddie Jordan was deeply sceptical about the introduction of the system in the BBC’s pre-race build up, and up to the moment the lights went out it was very much something which looked as though it could be taken or left.  Once the race was in swing though, it immediately proved its worth.  As well as providing an extra area of driving skill and tactical invention – watching the different drivers use their 6.7 seconds of boost per lap in different ways was, for me, a fascinating addition – it also spiced up the on-track action.  Being stuck behind a driver now no longer needs necessarily ruin your afternoon’s work.  Get on the push-to-pass button and get proactive… changing both the complexion of your own race and also the race as a spectacle seen from the outside.  There was certainly as much on-track excitement as I can ever remember there being at Albert Park, at least on a dry day. For all the changes the FIA have made in the 15 years I have been following the sport to “spice up the show”, these seem to be the first ones which have even vaguely looked like they might work.  Hats off.

Our third and final Button is Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.  Question marks hanging over his 20-year old head before the start, he delivered a fiesty yet mature drive which ultimately netted him 2 valuable points in a car which is probably not always going to be as lucky with other people’s mistakes as it was today.  He reminded me of Jenson Button’s first Grand Prix start, also at Melbourne, 9 years ago.  Whilst there have been more impressive debut in the meantime – Lewis Hamilton’s of course springs to mind – it’s undeniable that Buemi has put down a marker to suggest he may do more than just make up the round twenty.

Australia team-by-team

McLaren Mercedes

Pre-season testing, often so unreliable, proved crushingly accurate for McLaren.  The MP4/24 is as lacking in grip as it appeared and the team has a lot of work still to do… 2 seconds or more is a lot to find, even for a team of McLaren’s quality and experience.  Nevertheless, raceday was more encouraging and they will be delighted to have scored 6 points today.  Heikki Kovalainen’s struggle was ended in a mercy killing on lap one, as he got involved in the wake of Rubens Barrichello’s chaotic start.  Lewis Hamilton, however, demonstrated his true championship class.  His drive, both aggressive and measured, may well be his finest in Formula 1 yet.

Ferrari

A schizophrenic beginning for Maranello.  The cars were quixotically fast in practice and qualifying, and looked as though a combination of long-run pace and a tactical gamble could pay off in the race.  However, last season’s gremlins both returned to haunt the team, Massa’s car failing him and Räikkönen dropping the car off the road whilst in hot pursuit of the top three.

BMW Sauber

It’s difficult to know what to make of the BMW effort.  Kubica could well have won outright  had he not gotten involved with Vettel late in the race.  However, this raceday performance, coupled with a very decent qualifying, seemed at odds with a very average weekend up to that point.  Nick Heidfeld was very anonymous all weekend, leaving major questionmarks remaining about BMW’s real pace.

Renault

Renault arrived in Australia quietly confident and will most likely leave under a cloud.  The car, which looks like a sharpened hippo, is needlessly ugly it seems as it his simply not yet competitive enough.  Fernando Alonso did his best with a car undiscernably a step forward from last season’s R28 and finished a fairly anonymous fifth.  Nelson Piquet tapped into his mount’s sense of deja vu, meanwhile, and had a torrid time which eventually ended in the gravel after braking problems.

Toyota

Up against it the whole weekend, Toyota left everyone in no doubt that on the circuit at least, they are a force to be reckoned with this year.  Embroiled in the diffuser row upon their arrival, the team subsequently got demoted to the back of the grid after qualifying for an illegal level of flexion in its rear wing.  This amended, both drivers demonstrated the car’s strength throughout the meeting, Trulli winning a podium before being demoted for a yellow flag infringement.  Even so, Glock’s 4th place show that the team may finally have taken a step up in ultimate competitiveness.

Toro Rosso Ferrari

The Toro Rosso is not a car which seems able to match it’s 2008 form, which doesn’t represent much of a surprise.  Poor in qualifying, the team nevertheless leave Melbourne with a very respectable 3 points from a 7th and an 8th place finish, Sebastiens Buemi and Bourdais showing a keen understanding that getting the car to the finish of the first race will often pay dividends which seemed to escape some of their rivals.

Red Bull Renault

The fastest car of the weekend without a controversial double-decker diffuser, Red Bull have – if the estimates of a half-second performance advantage are correct – produced perhaps the fastest car of 2009 thus far.  Once the contentious issue is resolved, expect them to be challenging for wins.  Sebastian Vettel will be the most likely candidate for these, seemingly having both the measure of Mark Webber in terms of pace whilst more than outstripping him in terms of luck.  One day, something will fall right for Webber.  At which point everyone will most likely moan about how lucky he is.

Williams Toyota

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend, the Williams car dominated the first practice days but fell back slightly at the most crucial time.  Still, Nico Rosberg demonstrated good pace in the race, hamstrung by a start hampered by Barrichello’s adventures.  However, a late-race dip in speed on the soft tyres cost him dearly, 6th place was the best he could do.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, was less impressive, finally spinning the car into the turn 5 wall.

Force India Mercedes

It’s hard to look past the fact that, on raw pace, Force India seem to be bringing up the rear so far, although glimpses of much more reliable midfield pace presented themselves during practice.  In a season where the difference between a point and being the last of the runners may be a second or less, Force India look like a team who should trouble the scorers this year.  In Australia, though, they just lacked that extra bit of urge, Sutil finishing 9th and Fisichella 11th, both nevertheless on the leader’s lap.

Brawn GP Mercedes

A dream start by all accounts.  Diffuser controversy aside, Brawn were quick all weekend and proved able to make the step up in ultimate pace at the right time.  What will most please the team, surely, will be the reliability and strength demonstrated by their under-tested car.  Jenson Button scored a well-deserved second Grand Prix win, whilst after an eventful race, Rubens Barrichello made it a Disney time 1-2 finish on the team’s first outing.  He was, however, probably lucky to escape censure for his first corner rough housing, or damage from that contact and a later nudge with Räikkönen’s Ferrari.

In this final part of my preview of the 2009 season, I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of  McLaren Mercedes and  Ferrari. Then I’ll really put my foot in it and predict the way I think things will finish in this year’s standings.

McLAREN MERCEDES

Team principal Martin Whitmarsh Technical Directors Paddy Lowe and Neil Oatley Base Woking, UK Car McLaren MP4/24 Engine Mercedes-Benz FO 108W Designers Neil Oatley and Pat Fry 2008 2nd place, 151 points

All change at the top of one of F1’s most enduring teams, as Ron Dennis steps down after nearly 30 years as team principal.  Whilst this will present no difficulties to an organisation such as McLaren, a more vexing issue is likely to be the pace of the MP4/24 car.  Despite its good looks, it has been resolutely stuck on the bottom of the timesheets at most of the tests so far, the rumour being that there are serious issues with its rear wing and diffuser not creating enough downforce.  With testing completely banned within the season, McLaren will have to draw on all their experience and technical know-how to get back to fighting at the front.  I don’t doubt they’ll do it, but I’d not be surprised if it proves too late to win any more championships in 2009.

Of course, if the car does prove competitive enough, reigning Formula  world champion Lewis Hamilton (car number 1) will be amongst the favourites to retain his title.  The first two seasons of Hamilton’s career are now the stuff of legend, and whilst mistakes have started to creep in under pressure, there are now few people who seriously doubt his ability.  Brilliant in the wet and flamboyantly aggressive (sometimes too much so) when given a sniff of victory, Hamilton will be a major player in F1 for the next decade and beyond.

His teammate will again be the Finn Heikki Kovalainen in car 2.  Kovalainen’s 2008 was ultimately disappointing, his results not matching the pace which he often had, due to inconsistency, bad tactics or bad luck.  He was also soundly beaten by his teammate, so the objective for this season must surely be to get closer to him.  Still, he broke his duck for race wins in Hungary, so he can at least enter this season with that monkey off his back.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems McLaren will face will be that Hamilton and Kovalainen are so inexperienced.  Between the two there are only 70 Grand Prix starts.  Whilst it’s undeniable that they have won 10 of these and that Hamilton is now a world champion, will they really have the experience to assist the team in developing its seemingly recalcitrant car?  Even their test driver – 38-year old Pedro de la Rosa, a good, solid racing driver of some standing – has little in the way of Grand Prix experience, with only 71 starts to his name, and only a handful of those in genuinely competitive machinery.  Should 2009 prove a disaster, don’t be surprised to see a driver of real front end experience lured to Woking for 2010.

Hamilton at a glance: Born Stevenage, UK  Age 24.   2005 European Formula 3 Champion, 2006 GP2 Champion, 2008 Formula 1 World Champion First GP Australia 2007  GP starts 35  (9 wins, 13 pole positions, 3 fastest laps)  Points 207

Kovalainen at a glance: Born Suomussalmi, Finland  Age 27.  2004 World Series by Nissan Champion  First GP Australia 2007  GP starts 35  (1 win, 1 pole position, 2 fastest laps)  Points 83

FERRARI

Team principal Stefano Domenicali Technical Director Aldo Costa Base Maranello, Italy Car Ferrari F60 Engine Ferrari 056 Designer Aldo Costa 2008 Champions, 172 points

Constructors’ Champions again for the 8th time in the last 10 years in 2008, Ferrari also won more races, podiums and fastest laps than any of their rivals last year.  Now completely out of their era of utter dominance in terms of personnel, Ferrari have proved that Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Michael Schumacher’s greatest legacy to the Scuderia was to leave a solid backbone capable of continuing their work without them.  It is this solid foundation which makes them the favourites going in to the 2009 season, in spite of their F60 car being so far slightly pipped for pace by the Brawn Mercedes.  The only potential lurking problem is reliability.  Bulletproof for much of the decade, last season saw Ferrari starting to look a little more vulnerable, particularly to engine failures.  This may prove a concern as more and more components of the car are required to last multiple races.

There are few problems, though, with their unchanged driver line-up.  In car 3 is title favourite Felipe Massa.  Massa had a watershed year in 2008, starting it off looking characteristically woolly and unpredictible but finishing it with a speed, consistency and polish which looked every inch the world champion that he became, albeit for 30 seconds.  He seems to be slightly weaker than some of his main rivals in wheel-to-wheel combat, but when he is capable of drives of the crushing dominance he displayed in Bahrain, Turkey or Valencia, this ceases to be such a concern.  His drive in the pressure cooker of a title-deciding, wet-dry-wet again, Brazilian Grand Prix was as good as any you will ever see and a clear sign that Massa has now matured into a very complete racing driver.   Deserves to be World Champion this year.

Kimi Räikkönen will be in car 4, and has an awful lot to prove, especially with Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica after his seat as soon as they can get it.  Over one lap, Räikkönen is faster than any of his rivals.  The problem is, you never quite know when that single lap will be.  Too often in 2008 it was in the middle of a race which saw him tooling around in the bottom end of the top 6.  To get a record-equalling 10 fastest laps in a season whilst simultaneously being so inconsistent must have driven his team to the edge of their sanity.  Despite all his problems, he still managed 2 wins and podiums in half of the races last year, so only a fool would underestimate him.  I think he will be improved in 2009, simply because if he isn’t, he’ll most likely be out on his ear come November.

Massa at a glance: Born São Paulo, Brazil  Age 25.  2000 Italian Formula Renault Champion; 2000 European Formula Renault Champion; 2001 European Formula 3000 Champion  First GP Australia 2002  GP starts 106  (11 wins, 15 pole positions, 11 fastest laps)  Points 298

Räikkönen at a glance: Born Espoo, Finland  Age 29.  2000 British Formula Renault Champion, 2007 Formula 1 World Champion First GP Australia 2001  GP starts 139  (17 wins, 16 pole positions, 35 fastest laps)  Points 525

MY PREDICTION FOR 2009

Right, all the blather out of the way, who do I think will do what in 2009?  I think the world champion will be Felipe Massa and the constructors’ champion will be Ferrari.  I see better years in prospect for Brawn, Red Bull and Toyota; worse from McLaren and Toro Rosso, with the rest of the teams more or less where they were in 2008.

In terms of race wins, I think 2009 may prove a vintage year, with perhaps 8 different winning drivers and 5 different winning teams.  If I had to pick out one candidate for a maiden victory, I’d go for Nick Heidfeld.

Finally, here’s my guess at how the final standings will look:

Drivers:

1. Felipe Massa; 2. Kimi Raikkonen; 3. Jenson Button; 4. Robert Kubica; 5. Fernando Alonso; 6. Lewis Hamilton; 7. Sebastian Vettel; 8. Rubens Barrichello; 9. Nick Heidfeld; 10. Timo Glock; 11. Heikki Kovalainen; 12. Mark Webber; 13. Jarno Trulli; 14. Nico Rosberg; 15. Nelson Piquet; 16. Sebastien Bourdais; 17. Kazuki Nakajima; 18. Sebastien Buemi; 19. Adrian Sutil; 20. Giancarlo Fisichella.

Constructors:

1. Ferrari; 2. BMW; 3. Brawn; 4. Renault; 5. McLaren; 6. Toyota; 7. Red Bull; 8. Williams; 9. Toro Rosso; 10. Force India

The real delight, however, is that I genuinely have no idea if any of this will be right.  The most refreshingly open Formula 1 season in my lifetime, then, starts at 7 a.m. BST this Sunday.  Watch it, or else.